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Sunday, September 11, 2016

Is Your Writing History?

So...I was writing a post on writing funny when I noticed the date of today's post and decided to
postpone that one (stop by on Sept. 21 for my thoughts on writing funny). Today is 9-11. It was fifteen years ago and in one way it seems like just yesterday. I can remember where I was when I learned about the attack, the phone calls to family members around the country, the difficulties of trying to give my 6 and 10 year old daughters just enough information.

But recently I've been interviewing military personnel for a weekly feature in my local newspaper and their comments have made it glaringly clear how long ago it actually was. It was a generation ago, a lifetime ago. There are two groups of men and women I've interviewed. First, are the ones that remember 9-11. Almost every one has mentioned how it affected them. They talk about how it influenced their decision to enlist or the trajectory of their career. They mention people they served with who were lost in the Pentagon that day. They talk about the change in the military after 9-11. For them 9-11 is memory and emotion, entwined in their life.

The other group is too young to compare life before and after 9-11. It has always been there. It wasn't a factor in their decision to enlist. If they even personally know someone affected by 9-11 it is a tenuous connection. The connection of a child's memory with a person they may not even remember or who is decades older than them. For them 9-11 is history, facts in a book or documentary.

How do these two different groups affect us as writers? If, like me, you are getting to be...a certain're realizing that more and more of your life is being relegated to history books. We are becoming living history. We remember gas lines, Iran hostages, the Berlin Wall, AIDS quilts, presidential assassination attempts and yes, 9-11. As writers I think we have to be careful to keep in mind the gulf between people who remember history and those who learned it in history class.

With universal experiences like 9-11 it's easy to assume that everyone understands the emotions, the details, the mistakes, the images because we all lived through it. Except, "we" didn't. Many of our readers are not our peers. They were children or not even born when the things we write about (whether in non-fiction or fiction) were happening. So when we edit our work we have to be careful we aren't writing in the shorthand of people who experienced an event. We have to include enough information that even people who didn't live through a particular time period or event can understand how the world felt and reacted.

I think especially with fiction set in the recent past we can create characters that younger readers don't fully understand. So take time to provide some background facts about the time period and how the world as it was affected the emotions and decisions of your characters. Don't overlook the fact that although for us what we write about is personal, for some of  our readers it's history.

Jodi M. Webb is writer living in Pennsylvania who also is a WOW blog tour manager. Her next tours will be Sugarland by Martha Conway, a novel that involves murder, Chicago and 1920s jazz clubs and Creative Visualization for Writers by Nina Amir, an insiprational writing boost. Contact her at if you're interested in joining either tour. You can find her blogging about books at Building Bookshelves


  1. Great advice, Jodi! Something that we "older" writers are apt to forget. As always, I so appreciate WOW!

  2. Excellent post, Jodi! They did a show on NPR a while back that explored this very topic on the world before/after 9/11 and interviewed kids who've always lived in the "after"--it was fascinating, and you're right, it makes you realize that although we live in the same world, we see things so differently with age. Thanks for the reminder to share some history when writing. It's something I often forget to do because I assume readers are in the know!


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